In recent years, a number of analysts and former government officials have argued that Saudi Arabia would feel pressured into pursuing its own nuclear deterrent should Iran, a country that the Saudis view with contempt and fear, develop its own nuclear arsenal. In light of the Kingdom’s inability to domestically develop such a capability in a short amount of time, the concern was that Saudi Arabia would purchase a nuclear weapon from its long-time ally Pakistan, whose nuclear weapons program was partly financed by the Gulf kingdom.
Claiming this “conventional wisdom” was “wrong”, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) argued in its February 2013 report “Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds a Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?” that a nuclear weapon transfer from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia was highly unlikely should Iran ever attain a nuclear weapon. Aside from the lack of hard evidence of any assurance from Pakistan that it would sell its weapons to Saudi Arabia, both countries would face significant disincentives to ever follow through with such a transaction.
On the Saudi side, it would face a harsh backlash from the international community. Saudi Arabia is a Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatory and its contravention of this treaty and the norm it encapsulates would likely cause many countries to issue far-reaching and damaging economic sanctions against the Gulf kingdom. The US-Saudi security relationship, upon which the country is so dependent for its military security, would also be nullified, and Israel might consider a reactionary strike against Saudi Arabia, similar to those against Iraq in 1981.
Pakistan would face a similar international backlash. Although it is not an NPT signatory, its actions as a nuclear weapons proliferator would also contravene accepted international proliferation norms and likely result in far-reaching economic sanctions. In light of Pakistan’s weak economy and political institutions, it would suffer considerably if such sanctions were issued.
Taken together, the CNAS report concludes that both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have no incentive to pursue a nuclear weapons transaction in the event of Iranian weaponization.
Nine months later, doubts have been raised on this assessment following the publication of a BBC investigative report claiming that unnamed NATO sources confirm the existence of a Saudi-Pakistan nuclear agreement. In the report’s own words, Pakistani nuclear weapons “are now sitting ready for delivery” to the Gulf Kingdom.
Along with the “recent ‘rift’ between the US and Saudi Arabia and ambiguous statements from Saudi officials regarding the existence of this nuclear arrangement, the report has helped resurrect fears about the prospect of a Riyadh ready to go nuclear. Just yesterday, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal wrote with full confidence that, should Iran go nuclear (which he believes they will), “Saudi Arabia will move swiftly to acquire a nuclear deterrent from its clients in Islamabad.”
So, should we doubt the CNAS assessment of the situation? Will Saudi Arabia attain a nuclear weapon from Pakistan?
The answer to both questions is no. Even if the arrangement does exist, which the CNAS report originally doubted, the prospect of Pakistan transferring a nuclear weapon to Saudi Arabia any time soon is as slim as it was before.
Why? Because the array of disincentives facing both countries that the CNAS report identified in February still remain nine months later. If Riyadh purchased a weapon from Islamabad, both countries would still suffer from the damaging effects of the international backlash that would result. The costs continue to vastly outweigh the benefits.
Even if Iran attains a nuclear weapon and begins to act aggressively towards Saudi Arabia, it is not clear that a nuclear transfer would likely follow. While the Kingdom may seriously consider the acquisition of a nuclear weapon to defend itself in such a scenario, Pakistani incentives are unlikely to change. In comparison to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is not threatened by Iran or its ambitions in the wider Middle East. The benefits of selling a nuclear weapon would remain low in the face of high costs and so while Saudi Arabia may come to favor a transfer, Pakistan would likely refuse it.
Thus, the CNAS report’s overall assessment remains valid in light of these new findings. Regardless of whether a nuclear arrangement exists between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the likelihood of a nuclear transfer remains low for the foreseeable future. There are many justified fears concerning the potential consequences of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This just isn’t one of them.